anita-thiessen-mainBethel-educated nurse Anita Thiessen ’09 felt led to serve in Africa early in her life. She pursued nursing as a career at Bethel College. And earlier this year, she volunteered to work on the Africa Mercy, a 78-bed floating surgical hospital, then docked in Madagascar. The hospital ship provides free and lifesaving surgeries for people without access to medical care. It’s all part of Mercy Ships, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing health and healing to the poor.

A missionary kid who grew up in South America, Anita Thiessen has always had a hunger to travel and share the Gospel with a world in need.

“As a 10-year-old, I just knew,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to work in Africa when I grow up. I just need to figure out how.’”

Her mother was a missionary nurse, and Thiessen saw firsthand how being trained in the medical field can open doors to the mission field. So, she looked into nursing programs.

“I saw that 100 percent of nursing majors had passed their boards at Bethel, and my brother was a Bethel student,” says Thiessen of her decision to come to the college.

Her Bethel education prepared her well to serve both domestically (as a traveling surgical nurse) and abroad, where she’s volunteered for three mission trips with Mercy Ships, and is planning her fourth – a six-month assignment as a team leader, beginning in Dec. 2016.

“The greatest lesson I learned in nursing school is that each patient isn’t just a diagnosis. They are a person, and you have to treat the whole person,” Thiessen says.

©2016 Mercy Ships - Photo Credit Katie Keegan - CLIA - FWI Vision Trip observe General Surgeon Dr. Alan ABEL (USA), assisted by OR Nurses Anita THIESSEN (USA) and Franziska BOHNERT (DEU)

General Surgeon Dr. Alan ABEL (USA) is assisted by OR Nurses Anita THIESSEN (USA), at right, and Franziska BOHNERT (DEU). ©2016 Mercy Ships – Photo Credit Katie Keegan

On the Africa Mercy, Thiessen has served primarily as a surgical nurse, working with a diverse team of medical professionals from around the globe to treat severe and life-threatening conditions. One surgical team included volunteers from Australia, Great Britain, Switzerland and the United States.

“It’s amazing how people from all over the world, with one day of training, can become a cohesive team,” Thiessen says.

They begin each day with prayer, and ask patients if they can pray with them before surgery, recognizing the role that God plays in healing.

“It’s not just us [in the medical field]. God has a larger part,” Thiessen says. “[Surgeon] Dr. Gary prays over every patient; [he] prays God will give him the wisdom to do all he needs to do.”

She has seen the hope and transformation that Mercy Ships brings to patients, especially those who feel alone in their suffering but find, on the ship, others like them.

“Strangers find common ground through suffering and they bring their own hope. They give us so much more than we give them. It’s humbling. Very humbling,” Thiessen says.

She shares a story of two boys who both lost their noses to a flesh-eating infection and had surgery to take tissue from other parts of their bodies to build new noses. While they were in recovery, one boy’s mother died, so his father had to leave him alone on the ship. The other boy came alongside a boy he didn’t even know and they helped each other through the difficult road to recovery.

“I saw Stany go and dry Jack’s tears and feed him through a feeding tube,” she recalls.

It’s experiences like this that keep drawing Thiessen back to the ship. And she doesn’t plan to stop volunteering any time soon.

“My goal is to keep serving as I am. They can use me anywhere [on the ship] because I’ve been everywhere. I tell them the months I have available and they can use me.”

She encourages others, even those who aren’t medical professionals, to look into volunteering with Mercy Ships.

“God can use anyone from anywhere as long as they are willing to be used!”

Learn more about Bethel’s undergraduate and graduate nursing programs at Find out about volunteer opportunities with Mercy Ships at


africa-mercyAbout the Ship

The Africa Mercy is a 16,572-ton rail ferry that was converted into a floating hospital. The ship includes five operating theatres, recovery, intensive care and low dependency wards – totaling 78 patient beds. The hospital offers CT Scan, X-Ray and laboratory services, with a Nikon Coolscope for remote diagnosis. It is the largest civilian hospital ship in the world, with the capacity to house a crew of 450. Volunteer medical teams bring state-of-the-art care to those in desperate need – free of charge. (